The Three Buddhist Steps to Repairing Relationships

“The intention of deep listening and loving speech is to restore communication, because once communication is restored, everything is possible.”

The Three Buddhist Steps to Repairing Relationships

One fact that never fails to astound me: Despite the immense cultural changes and leaps in knowledge over the epochs, the human brain — that crucible of consciousness, roiling with the psychologies that govern the behaviors we call human nature — has remained virtually unchanged for the past hundred thousand years. How humbling to consider that what is cognitively true of our ancestors — who, lacking a knowledge of astronomy as the correct frame of reference for planetary motion, explained eclipses as acts of god and comets as omens of ill fortune — is as true of us.

The explanatory contexts in which this tendency manifests today may be different, but it manifests just the same — especially in our interpersonal relationships, where so much of the correct frame of reference that is the other person’s inner reality is invisible to us. It helps to remember that between our feelings and anything in the external world that causes the ripples of consciousness we call feelings — any difficult situation, any painful event, any hurtful action of another — there lie myriad possible causal explanations.

A lesson I learned through the observation of life is that when someone hurts in a relationship or we feel like we are being manipulated by the world, it’s more about our vulnerabilities and fears than with the facts of the situation. Nearly always, this explanation is false. The true explanation almost always has to do the vulnerability and fear we have invisibly.

Dreaming HorsesFranz Marc, 1913. Available as both a print or as stationary cards to benefit The Nature Conservancy.

And so, sensemaking and storytelling creatures that we are, we move through the real world in a self-generated dream, responding not to reality but to the stories we tell ourselves about what is true — stories at best incomplete and at worst injuriously incorrect, stories about what we do and don’t deserve, stories the cost of which is connection, trust, love. This is why without charity of interpretation and without candor — the vulnerability of it, the courage of it, the kindness of it — all relationships become a ricochet of unspoken resentments based mostly on misapprehended motives, and crumble.

A great Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat HanhThis three-step solution to this human elemental tendency is found in his slim, powerful book Fear: Essential Wisdom For Getting Through The Storm (public library). He also shares his wisdom about the four Buddhist mantras that can turn fear into love.

Thich Nhat Hanh

He wrote:

Wrong perceptions are responsible for a lot of our pain. We must change our perceptions to alleviate the pain.

Whenever we see another person take an action, he notes, we must remain aware that there could be a number of invisible motive forces behind it and we must be willing to listen in order to better understand them — not only out of the vain self-referential transactionalism masquerading as the Golden Rule, in the hope that others would be just as willing not to misunderstand our own motives by their perception and interpretation of our actions, but because correcting our wrong perceptions is a basic and vital form of caring for ourselves:

You will find that you understand more when you listen to other sides of the story. Your hurts are lessened.

Hanh presents a 3-step method for correcting misperceptions in relation conflict. Hanh is half a century since Erich Fromm, the famous humanistic psychologist and philosopher, laid out six rules of listening.

First, we need to recognize that our thoughts and feelings may be inaccurate. It is important to take a deep breath and then walk, until you feel more peaceful and relaxed.

When we feel ready to do so, the second is to let people know that we’re suffering from our wrong perceptions. Instead of accusing the other person/people, it is possible to ask for help from them and get their explanations.

If we are able, there is another thing that we must do. This third task is perhaps the most difficult and hardest. We need to listen very carefully to the other person’s response to truly understand and try to correct our perception. We may discover that we are the one who has been misunderstood. Most likely, the other person also has wrong perceptions.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings. Available as a print or face mask as well as as stationary cards.

The Western mind’s individualistic, self-centered ideal of self-reliance, which all too often morphs into self righteousness, finds it difficult to accept the possibility of being wrong. This makes us feel very unmoored and insecure about the idea of being wrong. The Eastern contemplative traditions are a great way to help in a culture that conflates who we are and what we believe. They gently and steadily practice releasing self-righteousness and allowing the hand of the receptive into the grasp of the truth.

Drawing on two powerful Buddhist practices that effect this release — deep listening and loving speech — Hanh writes:

If we are sincere in wanting to learn the truth, and if we know how to use gentle speech and deep listening, we are much more likely to be able to hear others’ honest perceptions and feelings. We may also discover our own wrong perceptions. We can help correct the wrong perceptions of our clients if we listen to them. This approach allows us to transform our anger and fear into deeper, more authentic relationships.

Art from the 1750 book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, who originated the “island universes” concept. This print is also available as a stationery card, a face mask and a printed copy.

This, he observes, applies to romantic relationships, to politics, to family and workplace dynamics — in other words, to all possible configurations of one consciousness embarking on the touching, terrifying endeavor of being known and understood by another.

With an eye towards the end goal, he says:

Intention of loving speech and deep listening is to restore communication. Communication is the key to everything, which includes peace and reconciliation.


We are all capable of recognizing that we’re not the only ones who suffer when there is a hard situation. We are responsible for our own suffering, but the other person is also affected. Realizing this allows us to see the person in question with compassion. This will allow for understanding. When we understand, everything changes. Communication becomes possible.

Any real peace process has to begin with ourselves… We have to practice peace to help the other side make peace.

Shortly after he wrote Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, Hanh placed this insight at the center of his now-classic teachings about how to love — an insight that also animates Alain de Botton’s soulful wisdom on what makes a good communicator. Perhaps Walt Whitman, writing with ecstatic immediacy, best captured this in his intimation that the secret of Being is “to do nothing but listen,” so that the song of life — which is the song of love — may be heard.

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